Bernie Sanders zeroes in on South with a swing through Georgia

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is trying to appeal to a stretch of Southern states that spurned him three years ago, as he seeks anew to connect with black voters who will help decide the presidential primaries across the region.

The Vermont Democrat will hold a town hall on Saturday in Augusta, part of a three-day blitz that will also bring him to Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina.

It’s his first visit to Georgia this cycle, and one of several to South Carolina, home to the first-in-the-South Democratic primary. And by visiting Augusta, the White House hopeful will also slice into a chunk of the South Carolina media market.

>> Election 2020: Georgia Presidential candidate visit tracker

It’s not surprising he’s trying to focus on the South early. His 2016 campaign hit a roadblock in South Carolina, where he lost to Hillary Clinton by a 3-1 margin. Exit polls in that state showed African-American voters made up nearly two-thirds of the primary vote – and about 86% voted for Clinton.

In Georgia, which voted days later, Sanders barely cracked one-quarter of the vote. Clinton, meanwhile, amassed a trove of delegates in Georgia and across the rest of the South, where black voters make up the bulk of the Democratic electorate.

This year, Sanders’ task is even more complicated. The Democratic primary field is larger and more diverse than ever, and there are two leading African-American candidates for presidency – plus the specter of a potential Stacey Abrams campaign.

It's not yet clear whether the grassroots Sanders supporters in Georgia who backed him in 2016 will be back in 2020; most of the leading activists and elected officials in the state told the AJC in a recent survey they're staying neutral for now.

Still, Sanders has not yet been sidelined in the South. A poll released Sunday by The Charleston Post & Courier showed Sanders was preferred by 15 percent of the state's likely Democratic voters, second only to former Vice President Joe Biden.